And so I have a literary agent. Being able to write that sentence is phenomenal. It’s taken me thirteen years to do it – although I admit I started quite young, and gave myself a head start. But still, thirteen years from that first letter I sent to an agent, to now, contract signed, done and dusted. I’m an author.
It’s taken me thousands of other sentences written over weeks and months and years to come to that; I’m an author. It’s almost surreal.
So this is my agent story – not covering thirteen years, but instead just the last two.
|Lots of work and lots of words|
The original idea for EREN came years ago, scribbled down in a notebook I still have somewhere in England. A few scenes, a rough idea of a creature in an attic, and nothing more than that. The story fizzled and died, but there was something there, some part of the story that stayed with me. In the meantime I wrote a couple of novels, got a degree, moved to Japan, and met a girl.
Life happened. The girl (my fianceé, then wife, as it happens) told me about NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. Every November you get together with other writers and try to bang out 50,000 words. In 2009 I wrote a novel called The Gentlemen Travellers. In 2010, I decided to revisit EREN.
Everything had to change, it turns out, for the story to work. Setting, voice, gender – the lot. But once I’d worked that out, I started writing. A year later (so, not a NaNoWriMo winner, then) I had a book, and sent it out to an agent. Surprisingly, she asked for the full. I was still in Japan then, and planning a wedding and move to the States, so times were busy – especially after the March 11 earthquake changed so many things - but I sent it off and waited.
Waiting takes time. It was August when I heard back. Eight months. It was a no, but with some great insights and tips, which I was happy enough to get. I sent off the revised book to an agent in the UK. Waiting happened. Life happened. I heard back – another no, but with more suggestions. I knew it was good that agents were remembering the book, and offering editorial input, but clearly there was work to do still.
I rewrote and revised more, and selected another ten or so agents, some British, some American, and sent off the queries. I heard back from one British agent almost straight away – a full request. Clearly my query was working now. I heard back from another agent – a full request. Exciting times.
13th March, 2012. While helping to run a panel discussion in NYC for work, I got two e-mails to my phone. The first agent was passing – again, more suggestions, more thoughts on the weak points, and an invitation to submit it in the future if I gave it an ‘overhaul.’ The second e-mail was shorter. Could she phone me to discuss the book?
You’ll find a lot of talk of writers boards about The Call (yes, with that capitalisation), when an agent offers you representation and your true career begins. But this didn’t feel like it to me. I was sensing that the book was decent, but flawed. But I was excited. Agents don’t call you up for nothing – she was already investing at least something in me. We agreed a time.
It’s a strange experience having someone praise your work whose opinion you really trust. She was a professional agent, and she had great things to say. And yes, she had some serious reservations. We spoke for maybe twenty minutes, half an hour, and she asked me if I’d be willing to work on a redraft if she sent me notes. I was over the moon. We hung up, and I sat down to appreciate what an opportunity this could be.
That evening the notes came through – some astute observations on specific points, some structural problems, some questions about red herrings and inconsistencies I hadn’t intended. I agreed to the rewrite, and away we went.
With an agent’s kind words to spur me on, I finally showed the book to my wife and in-laws. I needed objective criticism from someone who’d never read it before. My wife and sisters especially were amazing – they agreed with the agent, for one thing, but they pushed me on every little point that confused them. Why this word? This phrasing was awful. Why was she wearing ear muffs in summer? I’d got this story wrong. I’d misspelled this word. There was a typo on page 102…
I rewrote and added scenes and clarified points and changed the structure. Their corrections and questions never annoyed me. With so much at stake my pride could take the odd hit.
I spent a month on revisions – which is a short time. R&R requests often leave you with an open ended invitation. But with a trip to England coming up I felt the timing worked out, and I was happy with the new book. It felt solid and improved. I felt there was a chance – still small, far off, just a dot on the horizon – that I could land an agent. You have to remember the thirteen years bit to get my state of mind.
I sent it back again, on April 15th – which is the start of the London Book Fair (the busiest time for agents in Britain) – a week after the agent moved house (gaining a backlog of queries) - just as she’d got not one, but two manuscripts from her clients to review (time consuming work). She e-mailed me back, letting me know I would hear in a couple of weeks, and so the final wait began.
You can probably imagine how I spent the two weeks. I was clear from the start not to let my imagination run wild. I would not contact the agent before she contacted me and I would not get my hopes up. On that point I had to be firm. There was no commitment here on either side, and agents take on startlingly few clients a year, from thousands of submissions. The odds are bad even if your writing is good.
Instead I focussed on social media, and building my life as a writer, and my next book. When the first interest had come I’d started this blog and my Twitter account, to show any potential investors that I was serious and committed – that I considered writing my job just as much as anything else.
I kept an eye on the agent’s Twitter feed, of course. We tweeted a couple of times, just jokes and comments. She was busy. I was getting ready for a flight to London and forcing myself not to think about it.
I travelled to England with family, and then back to the US. Jetlag hit, and a sluggish return to work.
Then the reply came, the day after we got back. Could we talk on the phone? 4 o’clock was agreed. I spent the day feverishly ignoring the passing of time and Being Busy. We took the dog to the vet and I played honkytonk Phantom of the Opera on an old piano.
The agent phoned - Molly Ker Hawn, of The Bent Agency – and, well, offered representation. She was fantastic. She said nice things about the book and gave me room to think and wait. She mentioned a few publishers she was thinking of, and a few small edits to make. It was surreal suddenly having an agent. My agent. All I can say is – it was worth the wait.
|A happy Simon signing the contract, being told to stop laughing so much by Patient Wife|